Canada’s World-Renowned Freshwater Research Facility Saved by New Management

Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.
Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area.

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Canada’s flagship environmental research center that has been under threat of closure for 2 years, has found a savior. The ELA will leave government hands and will now be managed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank. The 1 April announcement guarantees that the 46-year-old field site in northwestern Ontario will survive, at least for another 5 years, and will expand its research focus beyond that of the Canadian government’s mandate.

The deal will hopefully bring the ELA some “stability,” says Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist who since mid-2012 has led a campaign to save the facility. The campaign began after the Canadian government pulled the project’s funding and handed pink slips to its team of 16 scientists and technicians. Last year, the lab, which conducts experiments in a system of 58 lakes, was saved from the bulldozers by a stopgap payment of $2 million from the provincial government of Ontario. Now, IISD has a chance to rebuild the ELA after years of neglect by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Orihel says.

The ELA, the world’s only facility where researchers can intentionally poison whole lakes to monitor ecosystem effects, has an impressive research record: Its scientists were the first to find evidence for acid rain, and to fully diagnose the effects of pollutants such as mercury, phosphate, and synthetic hormones on aquatic life. IISD President Scott Vaughan tells ScienceInsider that he intends to build upon this past research, while looking to expand the scope of the facility’s science to investigate the effects of micropollutants and climate change on aquatic systems.

The takeover deal relies on agreements between Ontario and IISD, between Canada and IISD, and a third trilateral Canada-Ontario-IISD pact to ensure that all long-term data and physical samples from the facility are available to future researchers. Access to these freshwater data sets—some of the longest and most thorough in the world—will keep scientists coming back to ELA, backers say.

But the fresh management brings new challenges. The provincial government of Ontario has pledged $2 million a year for 5 years to cover operating costs and long-term monitoring. These funds will be topped up by Manitoba and Canada, which have promised $900,000 over 6 years and $250,000 per year for 4 years, respectively. But the provincial and federal moneys will not fund scientific experiments, which were previously funded through government grants. ELA scientists will now need to partner with universities to apply for those national grants. And beyond the next 5 years, the IISD will need to embark on a major fundraising campaign to keep the ELA open. “That’s an ambitious amount of money to raise,” Orihel says.

The next challenge will be to staff the facility. Vaughan says his goal is to invite back the scientists who previously worked at the ELA and offer them a job with IISD. That will be difficult, Orihel says: “The science team has been withering away for a number of years; as people retire they haven’t been replaced … some scientists got frustrated and took other positions.” She adds that the ELA is not just buildings and lakes, it is people, and the government should have done more to transition that previous team to a new operator.

If a new team can be found in time, the takeover comes just in time for experiments at the facility to resume in the spring. And this summer, after consultations with interested university-based scientists, the new research plan will be announced.

Brokering the deal has been a long haul, Vaughan says. IISD members are “incredibly grateful” to the scientists, including Orihel, who worked to save the ELA before IISD stepped in. He adds: “They are an impressive group of committed scientists.”

:: Read original here ::

German Researchers Withdraw From Canadian Oil Sands Project

a
TORONTO, CANADA—German scientists have pulled out of an international research project with Canada that was attempting to find ways to minimize the environmental damage caused by exploiting Alberta’s oil sands. The move comes after political pressure forced Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, to rethink its connections with an industry that many consider to be environmentally destructive.

The scientists who are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will no longer be involved in developing technologies that improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat the toxic effluent from the oil sands projects. Instead, the scientists will focus their efforts on the initiative’s remaining research avenues, such as carbon capture and storage and mine site reclamation.

It is a change in focus, Stefan Scherer, the managing director for the HAI, tells ScienceInsider. HAI, founded in 2011, is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta “designed to find solutions to the pressing environmental issues facing energy projects such as Alberta’s oil sands in Canada and coal production in Germany,” according to the project’s Web site. “I don’t anticipate laying off scientists,” nor will money be withdrawn from the project; the initiative is not collapsing, Scherer adds. That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Alberta’s Environment Minister Diana McQueen, whose department donated CAD $25 million to the project 2 years ago.

Of the four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, only one, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, has suspended its work in Canada. The institute’s supervisory board voted in December to impose a moratorium on UFZ’s involvement in the project. This decision is a “small hiccup”, explained Lorne Babiuk, the vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-chair in the initiative. He added that the initiative’s focus can easily be redirected because much of the technology being developed for use in the oil sands is relevant to other carbon industries. “We will reorient the initiative,” agrees the other co-chair, Reinhard Hüttl, scientific executive director of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We won’t have projects directly related to oil sands.”

The German move was in part triggered by ongoing debate over a possible amendment to the European Union’s fuel quality directive that would restrict the use of “high-polluting” oil within Europe. Germany, the largest market for fuels in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, has so far blocked the move along with the United Kingdom, but public opposition to importing Albertan oil remains high. The Canadian government has been lobbying German politicians at both the national and the European level to continue blocking the ban. That lobbying, along with Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, prompted several German politicians to ask the Helmholtz Association pointed questions about the Alberta project.

“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” Frank Messner, Helmholtz’s Environmental Research Centre head of staff, told a European news Web site. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

An independent assessment into Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative environmental credentials will report its findings in June.

:: Read original here ::

Canada’s Cash Controversy

TORONTO, CANADA—The Bank of Canada has issued an apology for expunging an Asian-looking scientist from a new $100 banknote after some Canadians objected to the figure. The bank’s governor said that the bank will review the design process for new currency in light of the ensuing public outcry.

The kerfuffle began several years ago, when currency designers showed focus groups the proposed design for a bill highlighting Canada’s contributions to biomedical science. The bank has declined to release that original image, which apparently showed a woman with Asian features using a microscope. But some members of the focus groups expressed concerns that “Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented,” and that the image “stereotype[d] … Asians [as] excelling in technology and/or the sciences,”
according to a report published by the Vancouver Sun. The bank then redrew the image to appear more Caucasian, which has ruffled feathers. An editorial in the Calgary Herald, for example, complained that the bank’s actions =”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
unwittingly reinforced the bigoted notion that white skin is neutral, [and] that ethnicity is a quality white people don’t have.=”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”

Ted Hsu, a former physicist and member of Canada’s Parliament, also criticized the bank’s actions. “I don’t think there is anything wrong … with the original image having too clear an ethnicity,” he says. “Canada is a diverse country; I think it is okay to have people of different ethnicities represented on our currency. … The Bank of Canada should not have responded to feedback [from focus groups] about how someone looked,” he adds, but should have instead left the design to the artist.

The new plasticized banknotes, which went into circulation this year, are more secure, cheaper, and greener than existing bills. In addition to the female scientist, the $100 note also includes a picture of a vial of insulin, which represents the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best (along with non-Canadian John Macleod). An image of an electrocardiogram alludes to the 1950s invention of the pacemaker, and a twist of DNA represents Canada’s role in sequencing the human genome. The significance of the controversial figure at the microscope is less clear.

“At least it’s a woman,” quips Paul Dufour, a science policy specialist at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. The bank got one thing right, he says: It tried to promote the role of women in science.

:: Read original here ::

Scientists march on Canadian parliament

To the mournful tune of a lone saxophone scientists marched through the streets of Ottawa and onto Canada’s Parliament Hill  to protest a glut of cuts to government research labs and — they say — a lack of evidence-based decision making in the Canadian government.

The 10 July rally drew an estimated 2000 scientists, graduate students and their supporters to the sunny capital, many of them dressed in white lab coats; smaller protests took place in other cities across the country including in Regina,  Guelph and Calgary.

The protesters accuse the Harper government of shutting down Canadian scientific agencies because they threaten to expose the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, particularly from the Alberta oil sand,  and of mining on Canadian lakes and rivers.

“That’s a story that [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t want you to hear,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy organization that works to promote green water and energy policies, in her speech outside the Houses of Parliament.

Cuts to the Canadian federal budget this year have meant the closure of various scientific programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a 44-year-old research station that houses a system of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. ELA provided the first evidence for acid rain, and diagnosed the effects of mercury pollution and synthetic hormones on aquatic life.

“Society has learned a tremendous amount [from these lakes],” said Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.  “It [will] be tremendous loss, and not just to Canadian society, because [the lakes] generates knowledge of importance to any country with lakes,” he told Nature.

The cuts are imminent. The first of Canadian government scientists will lose their positions at the beginning of August , and the closure of the ELA is slated for April next year.

“The government would like to have universities take over this facility, [but] in this time frame that almost certainly won’t happen…[the facility] will [therefore] presumably be moth-balled, taking with it decades of internationally renowned research,” said Hutchings.

In response to today’s protest, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, released a statement that claims the Canadian governments commitment to supporting science. “Our government is investing in science and research that is leading to breakthroughs that are strengthening our economy and the quality of life of all Canadians.

“While the government is returning to a balanced budget, science, technology and innovation remain a strong priority with an added $1.1-billion investment over five years,” he said.

But Ian Rutherford, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society based in Ottawa points out that the protest is not just about a failure by the government to fund science. “There is an insidious campaign to muzzle scientists, to keep science out of the news, to… make science unimportant,” he says. “I think it is wrong. The scientific community has to stand up and say this is nuts.”

One environmental scientist, Kringen Henein of Carlton University in Ottawa, told Nature: “I’m really depressed… I just became a grandmother…and what is my grandson’s country going to be like in forty years if this is the way we are going?”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog stated that 5000 participated in the march, according to an organizer’s count. The revised figure of 2000 is based on a police estimate.

:: Read original here ::

Canadian dig yields tiny dinosaur

The smallest meat-eating dinosaur yet to be found in North America has been identified from six tiny pelvic bones.

Hesperonychus was the size of a small chicken, and used its rows of serrated teeth to feed on insects, experts say.

The bird-like creature is closely related to Microraptor – a tiny feathered dinosaur discovered in China.

The specimen helps to confirm that reptiles, and not mammals, filled the role of small predators during the age of the dinosaurs.

The fossil skeleton, which lay misidentified for 25 years as a lizard, belongs to a group of dinosaurs called the theropods – bipedal reptiles that eventually gave rise to birds.

“Despite the discovery of exquisitely preserved skeletons of small bird-like dinosaurs in Asia, they are exceedingly rare in North America,” explained Dr Philip Currie, a palaeontologist from the University of Alberta and co-author on the paper.

Dr Currie had been pondering why so few small fossils have been unearthed in Alberta, Canada – one of the world’s richest sites for large-dinosaur bones.

Infographic (BBC)

 

He suspected that small dinosaurs did not preserve well in the region of the prevalence of larger predators in the area.

“There were many large dinosaurs running around eating them, and small bones are easily washed away by rivers [common in this region during the Cretaceous period]”, Dr Currie said.

The new find casts more doubt on whether mammals would have acted as small predators in Cretaceous-era North America. The fossilised pelvis came from an animal that weighed no more than 1.9kg (4.2lb) and appears distinctively reptilian.

“This tells us that [as in Asia], North American dinosaurs likely out-competed mammals for both large and small predator niches,” Dr Currie told BBC News.

‘Tree-hugging raptor’

The authors also suggest this discovery helps to resolve debate over whether flight originated from animals that ran on the ground, flapping their arms, or whether it started with tree-climbing animals gliding downwards.

Based on the size of the hips, and because one of the hip bones was bent – the pubis, a small bone that sits between the legs – “we know this dinosaur was a tree-climber”, Dr Currie explained.

“It likely used the long feathers on its limbs to glide or parachute from tree to tree.”

The specimen, Hesperonychus elizabethae – named after its collector Dr Elizabeth Nicholls – was reclassified by palaeontolgist Dr Nicholas Longrich, a co-author of the paper, from the University of Calgary.

The findings were reported in a recent article in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

:: Read original here ::